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Attack Politics: Insights by Buell and Sigelman

Attack Politics: Negativity in Presidential Campaigns since 1960
Emmett H Buell Jr. and Lee Sigelman

University Press of Kansas, 2008

“Attack politics” or, if you will, negative politics is part of political scene.  This book examines political campaigns from 1960 to 2004, drawing out who attacked whom, how frequently attacks were made and on what issues, and at what point in the campaign.  Extracting 1124 campaign statements from the New York Times from 1960 to 2004, the authors examine some of our core assumptions and explicit propositions made about negative politics.  Buell and Sigelman build their work on the model presented by Skaperdas-Grofman (Modeling negative campaigning, The American Political Science Review, 89, 1, 1995, 49-61) and investigate whether candidates rationally evaluate the cost and benefits of going negative.  The model offered by Skaperdas and Grofman implies that candidates will not go negative when the risk outweighs the benefits.  Buell and Sigelman test these core propositions and conclude that “parties and candidates in varying strategic environments did not, for the most part, implement attack strategies that would have been anticipated for them based on a prominent ‘rational’ model of campaigning” (263).  Around this core finding, there are other numerous insights including that the negativity of presidential contests have not increased over time, that parties and presidential campaigns tend “to discuss the same issues rather than staking out their own issue turf and avoiding that of the opposition–has been the rule rather than the exception” (264).

I found myself reading this book during the last days of this year’s political campaign.  Looking at the campaign through the eyes of Buell and Sigelman, I asked myself how I would analyze the campaigns of McCain and Obama.  The authors provided me with an analytical framework to break down the concept of negativity and appreciate that “attack politics” is not monolithic, but subtle and complex.  While the books is a quantitative analysis, it is so fascinating and reads so easily that I would recommend it to all individuals interested in political leadership and of special importance to students of leadership.  This volume brings real insight to students of leadership in all sectors.  At its heart, Buell and Sigelman ask a fundamental question: Whether the choice of tactics or rhetoric can be simply subsumed under a rational model or whether it is a function of who we are–our histories, our personalities, etc.?  Leaders who are concerned with their tactical ability to move agendas forward will find this book fascinating.



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